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What it’s really like to be a woman at a tech conference

Ellen Lee
By Ellen Lee

This item has been updated.

The exhibitor held a prime spot at the tech conference, right before the entrance to the main hall. You couldn’t miss the display, which showcased its “smart clothing,” clothes with sensors woven in that could monitor your body temperature and other vital signs. I had strolled by a few times, and the exhibitor had always been busy.

Then I saw my chance: No one was standing in front of the table, so I walked over, picked up some paraphernalia and asked, “What do you make?”

It was meant to be an easy opening. Normally, exhibitors, who often pay thousands of dollars to be there, jump at the chance to showcase their latest gadget or gizmo, or at least feign enthusiasm. But the man behind the table had his head buried in his tablet, and barely lifted his eyes to meet mine before giving me a lukewarm response. I stepped closer to him, and pressed on, asking another question. He seemed annoyed that I was making him look up from his screen. He finally brushed me off when his partner, a woman, rejoined him. He directed me to her. Then he put down his tablet, stepped around the table and greeted a man who had come up to the booth behind me. His message could not have been clearer: He could not be bothered with the likes of me. But he could make time for another man.

Over the years, as a technology reporter, I have attended my share of conferences, from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to Macworld, back when Steve Jobs headlined the event. The speakers, exhibitors and venue may change, but there has always been one constant: Most of the people in attendance are men. As a woman, I rarely have to wait in line for the bathroom.

My gender usually doesn’t matter, however, because I wear a badge with my affiliation or the label “media.” Exhibitors are eager to talk, since it means a chance for some publicity.

But that day last week, my badge simply had my name on it, and in the bottom corner, in tiny letters, the designation of “press.” Unless you looked closely, I was pretty much an anonymous woman at a tech conference.

It should not have mattered whether I was part of the media or just another woman at a tech conference. At least that’s what I thought until I approached the smart clothing exhibitor and was dismissed.

Was this a coincidence? Maybe. Was I being too sensitive and reading too much into a perceived slight? Quite possibly. I am the first to admit that this was minor in the scheme of things, given that other women have reported being groped, harassed and maligned at tech conferences.

But it’s also the little, insidious coincidences that start to add up and grate. It’s when no women (or people of color) are featured as speakers at tech conferences or even considered among the most “desirable” innovators to be invited. It’s when a man and a woman walk into a room, and the man is assumed to be the leader. It’s the online comments left by trolls each time a story about women in technology is published. And it’s even when an exhibitor doesn’t bother to spend a few minutes to acknowledge a female journalist who wants to learn more about the company and its products. It all begs the question about whether the technology industry is as much of a meritocracy as it likes to believe it is.

The truth is that the technology industry still has a long way to go when it comes to women. Just look at the current fiasco at Tinder, the dating app that is being sued by one of its early female employees (who claims she actually was co-founder) for sexual harassment and discrimination. Or Github, where one of its female developers quit earlier this year because she was fed up with the startup’s sexist culture. Google, Yahoo, Facebook and LinkedIn recently unveiled the demographics of its workforce and—no surprise—the majority of their employees are men.

I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman in the technology industry. As a journalist, I merely peer in. But from that brief, frustrating exchange at last week’s tech conference, I can say this: The way to make the technology industry more inclusive could simply begin with common courtesy. My gender and my affiliation should not matter. Look up. Make eye contact. Start a conversation. It’s very easy if you try.